Twee and Twang: Stuart Murdoch’s ‘God Help the Girl’ is a Delightful Burst of Quirk

Some of you already know how much I love my movie-musicals — and recently, I’ve become very much obsessed with one in particular that I’ve been meaning to see for a while now: God Help the Girl (2014).  The brainchild of Belle & Sebastian musician Stuart Murdoch, the film also happens to be the offshoot of an eponymous side project, also created by Murdoch.  Over the years, as Murdoch began to write songs which were more suited for female voices and therefore didn’t quite have a place within the B&S ouevre, the idea of a concept album and accompanying film began to form.  

It was then that he took out an ad for female singers (as captured in the four-part documentary, Girl Singer Needed) — after which vocalists Catherine Ireton, Celia Garcia, Alexandra Klobouk, Brittany Stallings and Dina Bankole, among others.  What resulted then was a string of beautifully composed retro, girl group-style songs spanning a variety of genres — all illustrating an abstract story surrounding a girl named Eve, the ‘Girl’ of the project’s title. 

A few years after the album came out in 2009, a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter helped to finally, er, kickstart the film idea into motion.  It was released in 2014, and centers around Eve, an Australian girl suffering from anorexia nervosa, who escapes the psychiatric ward and absconds to the city of Glasgow to pursue her love of music and songwriting.  Along the way, she meets musician-slash-lifeguard James and his music student Cassie.  The three, each at a different crossroads in their life, begin a friendship around a shared love of music and decide to form a pop group. 

What results is a delightful flurry of quirky whimsy and bittersweet melancholy — with a huge dose of ear candy thrown in for good measure, of course.  Every second on the screen seems filled to the brim with aesthetically pleasing cinematography, along with the equally pleasant (and surprisingly so) vocal stylings of the film’s three ineffably charming leads.  As the titular character, Emily Browning embodies Eve with a depth of emotion evident in both her acting and her wispy lilt of a singing voice; while Olly Alexander (already a known musical talent in his own right with his band Years & Years) is perfectly awkward as James.  Reprising yet another role onscreen as a girl named Cassie, Hannah Murray continues to extend the same kooky-yet-ethereal quality in this film as she did with her similarly-named character in the television drama Skins.

Serving as perfect accompaniment to its homage to mid-century pop, the film playfully nods to iconic images of the past — particularly that of films of the era.  The most obvious of these is Browning herself, who is practically a modern-day dead ringer for Anna Karina — famed wife and muse to French New Wave director-auteur Jean-Luc Godard.  (Other visual references at play refer to Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort and the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night.) Murdoch not only turns one’s eye toward the beauty of his characters but also his native Glasgow.  While one might not immediately associate the city with particularly picturesque landscapes, the first-time director achieves just that with his portrayal of rivers, grassy hillsides, and moody city life.  In the end, it is a film which portrays a Scotland that is just as beautiful and multi-dimensional as not only the characters inhabiting it, but also the music which underscores it.


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